How Women Have Pushed Sports and Broadcasting Forward For Eight Decades

Television is “one of the most powerful places where women in sports have evolved.”

Nadia Comăneci and Cathy Rigby attend The Paley Honors in Hollywood: Celebrating Women in Television. Photo by Michael Bulbenko, courtesy of The Paly Center.

“Perhaps one of the most powerful places where women in sports have evolved is on television,” said Olympic gymnast Nadia Comăneci at the Paley Center for Media’s Paley Honors event on Oct. 12. “If it weren’t for TV, we’d never have seen all these iconic athletic performances, like Flo-Jo running like the wind, Peggy Fleming’s gold medal win, and that incredible moment of Brandi Chastain scoring the winning goal in the 1999 World Cup of women’s soccer.”

Fellow Olympic gymnast Cathy Rigby added, “And we owe it all to Billie Jean King.”

King, the tennis champion and activist for women’s rights in sports and beyond, brought the fight for equality front and center when her iconic 1973 “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match against Bobby Riggs. Importantly, her match demonstrated the tremendous power of the medium to propel women’s sports forward and vice versa. She realized its importance and helped promote it heavily before it was televised live, reaching an estimated audience of 90 million — enough to rival that of a Super Bowl.

“As a young athlete growing up in Toledo, Ohio, it was the first time I had ever seen a woman beat a man at anything,” wrote Christine Brennan in a recent USA Today column. “For some of us, mostly women, the Battle of the Sexes was a defining moment of our childhood, following as it did just 15 months after President Richard Nixon signed Title IX.”

The cultural impact was immediate — and long-lasting. King noted in her recent interview with Brennan that “there weren’t any women sports reporters at the match in 1973,” but that didn’t last for long.

A year later, in 1974, former Miss America pageant winner Phyllis George became the first woman to appear on a national TV sports program as a co-host of NFL Today, a live pregame show before national football games. George paved the way for other prominent female sports broadcasters to cover sports with gravitas and depth of knowledge, such as Hannah Storm, Willow Bay, Doris Burke, Rachel Nichols, Jemele Hill, and Erin Andrews.

Sports broadcaster Erin Andrews. Image by Neon Tommy/Flickr.

A look back at women in sports — whether on the court, field, or mat, on the sidelines, or in the press booth — shows what is possible when people are allowed to compete and prosper, regardless of gender.

For the Paley Center for Media’s president and chief executive, Maureen J. Reidy, television has helped propel this message forward through compelling images and representations of pioneering women doing just that in front of millions of people. The organization is dedicated to preserving these images and educating the public about their importance.

“Tonight, we demonstrate how television, more than any other medium, serves to shatter stereotypes, educate audiences, and bring people together,” Reidy said.

As part of an ongoing commitment to diversity in the Paley Center’s programming, the funds raised from the Paley Honors will benefit the Paley Center’s programming dedicated to women in television and the expansion of the Women’s Collection in the Paley Archive, the nation’s largest publicly accessible archive of television and radio programming. The Women’s Collection will be preserved in perpetuity and used to educate scholars, students, the creative community, and the general public.

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